WHERE: Owl and Turtle, 33 Bayview Street, Camden, ME

WHAT: Susan Conley discusses her new novel, Paris Was the Place

WHEN: Thursday, August 8, 5pm

The co-founder of The Telling Room, the Portland-based writing center for kids, has written her first work of fiction.

Paris was the Place tells the story of Willow Pears, a poetry teacher working with young girls seeking asylum in France. She helps them learn how to tell their stories for a courtroom judge who will decide their fates. Willie also juggles the mysterious sickness of her brother, Luke, and a blossoming love affair with a lawyer named Macon Ventri.

The Maine writer of an acclaimed memoir called The Foremost Good Fortune, Susan Conley almost became a lawyer herself. She was in San Francisco after college, working a temp job handing out condo keys and making coffee, when she was faced with a distinct decision.

“It was the classic fork in the road,” Conley said. “I had to decide between law school and an MFA in poetry.” She turned left towards literature and studied feminist poetics at San Diego State University. There, she fell in love with Tony Kieffer, now her husband.

Paris Was The Place

“San Diego State was mind-blowing for me,” she said. “We could almost see Tijuana. The whole border culture was fascinating.”

When she moved back from the west coast, she co-founded the Telling Room with her friends Sara Corbett and Mike Paterniti.

“We knew each other from shared pasts, and landed in Portland with the exact same idea,” she said. In the writing center’s beginnings, they spread the word by fanning out to the public schools in Portland. The Telling Room will celebrate its 10th year anniversary in January.

Asked about the connection between her Telling Room work and her first work of fiction, Conley said, “The stories of the Telling Room are sometimes extraordinarily painful, vivid, and explicit – partly about war and violence and loss. There, we are all about the story and not about the therapeutized aspect of the story, so the child writes and then finds the voice. I always believed in audience. That sense of being heard seems really important. You can watch the child emerge from the grief, the shadow.”

And a writing center works, she adds. “If you look at high school graduation rates or even attendance rates, they’re pretty compelling for kids who even get only 30 minutes a week of story-telling time.”

Check out Tim's article, "Susan Conley Tells It Like It Is," in our August issue of Dispatch, on newsstands now.